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Friday, May 06, 2005

The Russians are Interviewing

Here's the English text of the interview that Alexey Kobelev is publishing in Russian on his website.
I wasn't able to read the Russian translation, but was amused to see that Ken O'Connor's name translates pretty literally into Russian!
This was a lot of fun to do, and it also come nearly thirty years after I first went out to Cal Arts to learn how to draw animated cartoons, so it's sort of a commemoration of that event. To coin a phrase.
I am leaving Alexey's idiomatic English in place because I find it charming; I hope he does not mind. It's certainly better than my Russian.

Nancy, I'm immensely glad to an opportunity to have a talk with you! So my first question. Many artists become animators absolutely casually. For example, Glen Kean and John Pomeroy wanted to go into painting and never really planned to be in animation. How it has turned out that you became animator? Who was your first teacher in animation?

Dear Alexey,
I became an animator because of two English teachers, and the Zagreb Studio, and my father's love of shrimp salad sandwiches, and an Egyptian animator, and a very very good post office in Cranford, New Jersey. This may sound very strange but it is all absolutely true.

In America in the Seventies, film was taught as part of most American high schools English department. It was considered important to know something about Media. I had a fine teacher who gave us an assignment to do a "Media Project" which was to be film or slideshows. I had always enjoyed drawing and cartooning--
I even passed a Geometry class because I was able to draw cartoons of the other kids for the teacher so she gave me a better grade than I deserved!
So for the Media Project it seemed logical that I should do an animated cartoon. I had no idea how to do it, but with the help of the Kodak animation book and my father (who bought me a new 8mm camera) I shot a cut-paper animated film, OH FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS, and decided that this was something I was interested in doing for a living.
My father would go for shrimp salad sandwiches and play pool at a nice local bar. He bragged about this little film. One of his friends there worked at an optical effects house in New York City that was owned by a woman (INCREDIBLE OPTICALS)
I was invited to see this studio, and then they said that 'there was a guy up the street who taught animation'. I was able to meet with Egyptian animator Ray Seti, of Sunflower Films, who ran a small animation program from his studio in midtown Manhattan. I was his youngest student, just 16 years old. So I went into New York City on the bus every Tuesday during my summer break, to study with Ray Seti.
Ray was a good teacher. I still use some of his exercises with my own students.

When I got back to school I told my film teacher, Mr. Ed Roberts, that I wanted to be an animator. Mr. Roberts hated animation but he had surprisingly established contacts with the Zagreb studio. So when the Zagreb people came to New York City in the spring of 1975 to show their films at the Museum of Modern Art, they actually stopped off at this little high school in Cranford New Jersey to show us their animation. (New Jersey is the next state over from New York)

Now here is where the excellent post office becomes important. Cranford had such a good post office that the Walt Disney Company located its entire East Coast operation for 'Educational Media' there--this was a branch of Disney, now long gone, which marketed their films on 16mm for the schools. Disney's people heard of the Zagreb show and came to the high school to see it. While they were there they told Mr. Roberts to get 'any interested seniors' who wanted to be in animation to contact Disney, since 'something was going on at the Studio'.

I first showed my Ray Seti work to the people at Disney Educational Media, who told me to send it to Mr. Don Duckwall at Disney. When my father got done laughing, he said "Where else could the man work with that name?"

I was very young and foolish so decided that the little pencil tests that I did for Ray Seti were not possibly good enough to send to Disney, so I made another film called GET A HORSE, which was on cel and in color. I thought, it was in color, so it must be better!

When Disney's got the film and the few drawings I sent with it, they sent the materials to Jack Hannah at the California Institute of the Arts. Jack was heading up the school's new Disney animation training program. Jack Hannah called my parents and told us that they could offer me a full scholarship, with the Disney family paying the tuition to this school that no one had ever heard of.
My parents were so excited to hear about my being offered a scholarship in California that they actually had a party and put a story in the local newspaper!

I had already been accepted to New York University but decided, wisely as it turned out, to go to Cal Arts instead. That is how I got to be the only member of the original class who was not already in contact with the Disney Studio from a very young age, and one of only three girls to be accepted. By the end of year one, I was the only girl in the class.

This story is incredible! I wonder what was further? I believe you should be employed by Disney right after the end of education!

Unfortunately this did not happen, Alexey. I wasn't hired because of the very conservative policies in place at Disney's at the time.
Being a woman animator -- at a time when women were routinely directed to inking, assisting, or inbetweening jobs -- was a terrible handicap. That's why I went to Germany in 1988: I never had any discrimination for any reason while working in Germany and England or Denmark.

I was hired before I graduated by Jack Zander of Zander's Animation Parlour in New York City. Zander was a veteran of the TOM AND JERRY cartoons at MGM and had a very successful commercial studio known as the "Disney's of the East". It was a great place to start in and I made a lot of good friends there too. I recommend commercials since they are a great way to stretch your stylistic wings...the more styles you know, the more commercials you can do!

Anyway, before to discuss your European career I would like to talk about details of training in Cal Arts. As far as I know the people who have determined the face of modern American animation studied in Cal Arts simultaneously with you. At that time the school has presented such talented people as Bill Kroyer, John Lasseter, Brad Bird and others. It was unusual splash! What was so special in Cal Arts program?

In the 1930s, Walt Disney sent all of his animators to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles to learn how to draw the human figure successfully. Without this training, SNOW WHITE would have looked more like THE GODDESS OF SPRING, a SILLY SYMPHONY that was actually a training film for this feature. Disney was so disappointed in THE GODDESS OF SPRING that he paid the tuition for the entire studio. It was free, but they HAD to go to school for retraining to keep their jobs.

When Walt Disney died he left half of his personal fortune to the California Institute of the Arts, a school formed by merging the Chouinard Art Institute with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. He wanted this to be his memorial; and it was his original idea that it be a school where an art student could take music courses, a dancer could try cartooning, and all the arts would merge. Cal Arts officially opened in 1971. Disney's idea did not work in practice. Cal Arts was a typical art and design school in every respect save one--it had a world class animation program from the start headed by Jules Engel.

In 1971 the Disney studio had its first post-Walt Disney hit: THE ARISTOCATS. It was decided that the studio would continue with the production of animated cartoon features. Originally they had planned to finish this film and then close down the animation department; but THE ARISTOCATS' popularity showed that there was an interest in this type of entertainment and that it could do well even after the studio founder had died.

Since the original animators were beginning to retire, it was decided that a new animation training school be set up specifically for Disney style animation at the California Institute of the Arts to bring young animators into the studio.

The Character Animation program was to be separate from Jules Engel's experimental program. It featured a highly structured system of courses that emphasized classical art training.

All but one of the original faculty were Disney studio veterans. The exception was William Moore, legendary (and foul-mouthed) design teacher from the Chouinard Art Institute.

The program chair and animation teacher was Jack Hannah, (who is not related to Bill Hanna of Hanna Barbera) who storyboarded and directed Donald Duck cartoons for forty years. Elmer Plummer, story man on DUMBO and many other films, taught life drawing. Caricaturist and director (PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA) T. Hee taught Caricature, and layout man Kendall O'Connor (SNOW WHITE and too many other credits to list) taught Layout.

The first class was largely made up of young people who had been in communication with the Disney studio for many years. Some, including myself, were found at the last minute and accepted into the original class.

The curriculum was tough and the teachers acted more like directors. They weren't there to make you feel good; they were there to help you work. When Elmer Plummer told me that I wasn't drawing as well as the boys, I was mad--but not at him--and decided I was going to make sure that I caught up. I worked two hours a day on my sketchbook and did a minimum of ten pages each day, and I did improve.

Mr. Moore's design class was a particular torture since none of us had any training at all. Moore was brutal in his critiques, which sometimes led to a student (this one) having to leave the room suddenly. Once again, I was mad...but not at him. (Well, sometimes at him.) I worked until I understood the basic principles of design that he was describing. It was ultimately the most important class of them all; if you don't know good design, you can't do a good pose or background. It's the core of everything else.

Ken O'Connor and T. Hee were not as aggressive in their critiques but could be just as determined. All of them loved this art form and did not want to see it die with them.

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were frequent visitors and were genuinely helpful and approachable. They became good friends of many of the students.

Chuck Jones was also invited to all of our screenings. These started in a basement room in the school. They have now evolved into the Cal Arts Producers' Show, a lavish production in a real theatre that is attended by scouts from all the major studios.

Cal Arts was originally only supposed to have its Disney program for a few years. The studio no longer funds the program, but the tremendous interest in animation since 1975 ensures that the Cal Arts Program is consistently ranked as one of the best animation schools in the world.

Nearly all of the students in the original class of 1975 went on to work in animation or live action film. A picture taken in 1976 in Elmer Plummer's class is enclosed, which shows all but one of the original students.

Nancy, you earlier said, that you went to Europe in 1988. In what countries you worked? What production you enjoyed the most? Whether you had any language troubles?

I went to work in Germany in 1988 since I liked Berlin, liked the project, and preferred Europe to Los Angeles. At the time there was no animation work in New York City, where I lived, and I decided to go East rather than West. I have also worked in Denmark, England, and France.
I liked all the countries equally well and each studio featured talented coworkers. I never liked living in Los Angles but stayed there for eight years because I liked working for Disney. I left because I was in a bad car accident and so no longer drive cars. You can't live in L.A. without a car. You can see that my wanderings make sense...all the cities I liked living in had good public transportation! I am not ambitious enough to live badly for my art.
There were never language problems. I speak a little German, understand it well, and can read French and Spanish; though I can't speak French I understand it reasonably well. It's easy to live in a big city anywhere in Europe; it resembles New York more than Los Angeles (I got more culture shock in Los Angeles than in Berlin or Hamburg.) The German films were animated in German but we had translators since there were many nationalities on the project and everyone could understand the storyboards anyway. The French and British jobs were on American films so they were in English.

I wonder did you ever animate a character which you didn't enjoy animating?

Some commercial characters weren't too appealing, but then, as Eric Goldberg once said, it's all over in a couple of weeks, if you don't like it, something better will come along afterward! I've liked working on all my feature assignments though some were naturally a lot more challenging than others. A powerful voice actor with a strong personality makes it easy for the animator to give a fine performance. A poor voice actor with no real emphasis on their lines makes more of a challenge.

I don't know whether it is a surprise for you, Nancy, that from all features in which you took the part the most favorite in Russia is the "Goofy's Movie". Though the "Goof Troop" series was not so popular here, the full length feature really touched the hearts of Russian animation fan. And I'm talking not about commercial success but about emotional recognition. The theme of relations between father and son has appeared very close to the most different people.

Certainly, Alexey, I was on this film for several years. It is a good little movie. I am glad that this is a popular one! And the crew really enjoyed the movie. It was known as the 'little movie that could' since it just went on being popular despite not being a big budget Disney feature!

I said already that from all your animated features "A Goofy Movie" is the most favorable in Russia. But my personal favorite is the "Hercules" nevertheless. I believe that this film is perfect on most of levels. Nancy, as far as I know, you have animated the Fates and Thebans in that movie.I have a pretty silly question. I never forget the scene where one citizen narrates "We lost everything in the fire. Everything... except old Snowball here." It was so funny! But I have noticed that poor Snowball had appeared many times on the screen and each time he causes a smile on my face. I wonder is it was the director's idea or you have drawn this cat on your own?

You are correct that I worked on the Thebans as well as the Fates, though I did not do the scenes on the Thebans that you mention.
The burned cat was the director's and story men's idea, and they had Gerald Scarfe draw a design for the cat. The animator for that particular scene was Mike Show. I did all the other scenes where the cat is behaving very strangely.

The next question is the technical one. There is a scene where Thebans carried the Herc on their hands. Can you tell us how the scenes with interaction of different characters were created at Disney?

Usually someone in the HERCULES unit would animate him after the Thebans animator had done the group of characters carrying a 'place holder'.
There is a scene where the Thebans ask Hercules "Ever saved a town before? Ever dealt with a natural disaster?" I animated the Thebans and Hercules (but did not do Hercules on model). After I finished the Thebans, Andreas Deja animated Hercules reacting. The 'lead animator' would go first; in this case, it was me.
In another scene where a woman says, "Young man, we need a professional hero, not an amateur!" I animated the woman first, and Eric Goldberg animated Hercules and Phil.There is a scene where Hades says "Did you cut your hair? You look like a Fate worse than death." I animated Hades as well as Clotho the silly Fate, since they were touching.Most studios do not break up scenes the way Disney does. It took longer to animate under their system.

The same interaction was in the "Treasure Planet" also when Jim helps Billy Bones. In the director's audio commentaries were said that you had imagined the whole own world for the Billy Bones species. Can you tell us about it?

Billy Bones is a SPECIES I made up. But since I'd left Disney's by the time they recorded that track, they made up a lot of stuff for the DVD. It wasn't necessary to give Bones a planet; in this film, he's a fugitive who crash lands on Jim's planet and dies there after giving him the map.
I did have a lot to say about Bones' design. The orignal drawing that I used was a concept drawing by German artist Harald Siepermann. I then added a lot of material, including a 'high cocked' hat, and a novel way of painting the bags under his eyes so that they would appear to be deep set and glowing. Art director Ian Gooding was kind enough to use my suggestions about this.
Billy Bones is a dinosaur/tortoise with turtle feet and hands, the neck of a bird, fish gills (from a Sockeye salmon, a fish whose face gets hideously deformed before it dies) and he has a double hinged jaw like a snake. Even though the film is flawed I like his performance.
The gills were there so we could see his labored breathing and see them shut down when he dies. Every design element has a purpose.
The American DVD has the out takes of the animation--about fifty per cent of the Bones animation was not in the final movie.

Then I must ask what Bones animation was not included into the final version? Whether it was the flashbacks with Flint? And do you animate any other characters in "Treasure Planet"?

As for why Billy Bones was cut, it was because the character of Jim Hawkins needed to be changed. Originally he walked away from the injured Bones as the creature repeatedly asked him for help and actually grabbed at his pants leg (Bones was lying on the ground.) Since this is not a nice thing to do Jim now helps Billy up immediately. Jim Hawkins was not a standard character but we didn't want to make the audiences hate him.
I don't know why the footage did not show up on the European discs. To see it on the American one, you must play a game where you locate golden balls on the ship. When you find all the golden balls, there is an 'easter egg'--you get to see my original animation for Billy Bones, which is longer than in the finished feature. I believe that few people know about this footage, but it is there.

When artists speak about the director, they usually express set of compliments. Sometimes I feel that the person thus dissembles or simply says lies. But in all honestly whether you can choose the most talented and pleasant famous director of animated feature from those with whom you worked?

I've been lucky to work with a great many pleasant and talented directors. I've had relatively few directors whom I'd consider untalented and unpleasant, and that's a remarkable achievement in an industry with so many temperamental artists in it! Rather than single any one out, I'd say that my definition of a good director is someone who knows what they want. A director who is always changing their mind and making the artists redo things, and isn't able to communicate what they REALLY want from a scene, is a very poor director. Sadly, I've worked with a couple of these.
Even if the picture isn't that great, if the director knows what he or she wants, that's all I am interested in as an animator, director or producer.

Nancy, can you give the definition for the bad animation? What is the bad animation in your opinion?

Bad animation is animation that has no purpose; it can be 'full' or 'limited', computer, or hand drawn, or puppet-- if it has no purpose, it is just stuff moving around on a screen. The very worst animation I have seen is the type that appears to be made only for other animators. It stresses technique over storytelling or acting or artistic statement. Any film that has its technique showing or glorifies its technique is just an academic exercise; it's not a film that would take you to a new world or introduce you to new characters. Eventually the technique becomes dated, or even tiring, or the audience becomes jaded. Audiences, ultimately, respond to story and character and not exclusively to technique.
Live action films are also victims of this worship of technique. There are vast numbers of them that do this now that they can play with the computer effects!

Obviously there are bad animated features with a very good animation but whether there are good films with a terrible animation? If yes it is then what for to aspire to create good animation and to improve technics if it is possible to manage with mediocre?

There are a lot of bad features with good animation since more time is spent on the technique than on story. Films frequently go into production with the story in nebulous or poor condition.

As for good features with bad animation: This is perhaps a too strong word to use. Most good animation features are greater than the sum of their parts. In other words, not all the animation is sublime, some is okay and some can actually be weak from a professional standpoint; but if the story point is made and the pacing and the characters are good the audience will be forgiving of small defects. Only animators note the disappearing raccoon cub in BAMBI (now corrected in the DVD print after sixty years) or the sometimes shaky line on a drawn character, or other imperfections that the artists notice since they are there in the middle and cannot see the forest for the trees. Good animation and good storytelling and good production values combine to form a harmonious whole in a good animated film.

The traditional animation (Disney-like especially) has not the best times right now. Of course everyone understands that the deal is with the stories actually. And audiences are awaiting the new hand drawn films. And nevertheless there are very few traditional animated features in production. Nancy, do you believe that all will change someday or hand drawn animated features will become rarities just like clay animation?

I don't think there will be as many, but there will be, proportionately, many more good ones! Remember all the bad features that came out in the Eighties? People now will consider story when making a cartoon film, and that is all to the good.
Clay animation is some of the most successful in the world right now--think of WALLACE AND GROMIT. Aardman's CURSE OF THE WERE RABBIT is the first feature with these characters and Tim Burton's CORPSE BRIDE is also coming out this year. I think that the Aardman film could be the biggest animated hit of the year.
As for the computer films, they are already getting away from the boring 'realistic' look that so many aspired to--incorrectly, I feel, since if you want a realistic person, just film one! MADAGASCAR and CHICKEN LITTLE feature all animal casts that are cartoon characters.
We shall see. The only sure thing about film is that it is in a state of constant 'animation'.

Nancy, I think that the interview turn out to be amazing! Certainly, till now there was no anything similar in Russian Internet or press either.

Thank you, the interview has been fun.

Thank YOU!